Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Throughout the ages there have been those who prey on unsuspecting and desperate people. Con artists have sold shady pills, potions, and medical devices. Some of these products simply did nothing, while others actually caused harm. We now have some protection against them; the FDA is responsible for ensuring the safety of prescription drugs, medical devices, cosmetics, and foods.
What are the most common targets? The first is fake weight loss products (note that over 40% of the American population is obese). Red flags to watch for include promotional messages that include statements such as: weight loss without exercise, permanent weight loss, no need to monitor intake, 30 pounds in 30 days; and products in the form of a patch, cream, or magical pills. A second major scam category is alleged infertility treatments (at least 10% of women of childbearing years struggle with infertility). The FDA has clearly stated that dietary supplements that claim to cure, treat or prevent infertility and other reproductive health conditions can potentially harm those who use these products instead of seeking effective treatments.
Here are just a few outrageous health scams from the past:
The 1970’s Vision-Dieter Glasses claimed to reduce food cravings and hunger pangs through a secret European color technology. They, of course, did no such thing.
In 1958, Trim Reducing-aid Cigarettes were marketed for weight loss, claiming that smoking three cigarettes every day could result in a 20-pound weight loss in eight weeks, and that the product was harmless(!). Since these cigarettes were marketed as a drug, the FDA was able to ban them.
The ridiculous 1940’s era Vrilium Tube, or “Magic Spike,” claimed to “cure any disease.” It took advantage of the postwar interest in radioactivity, and back then actually sold for a whopping $300. It was a simple brass tube containing barium chloride, a horse laxative. Sadly, some who believed in it stopped other effective treatments.
In 1960, the FDA banned the selling or marketing of the Hoxsey cancer treatment methods, although unfortunately they continued to be available in Mexico, and later, over the Internet as well. Beginning in the 1920s, desperate people were scammed for millions of dollars by this fake cancer potion that the FDA calls “worthless and discredited.”
One of the products that led directly to the 1938 creation of the FDA was 1933’s Lash Lure. This was an eyelash and eyebrow dye made from a toxic industrial chemical that actually caused blisters, abscesses, ulcers, and even blindness.
How about using tapeworms for weight loss? In theory, it might work, but of course would be accompanied by nausea, weakness, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, bacterial infections, and even seizures. It’s possible that tapeworms have been used for weight loss since the Victorian Era, and tapeworm diet ads have been documented from the early 20th century.
In the present day, scammers promote their products with savvy marketing, and target specific populations via the web, phone, email, newspapers, magazines, TV, and direct mail. Health fraud scams are common on social media sites and messaging apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Viber. Scams are also common at convenience stores, gas stations, and flea markets. Watch out for clues like these:
Personal success stories for products that “cured” diabetes or COVID-19
Quick fixes, such as a 30-day cancer cure
A single product that cures many diseases
Products that feed into conspiracy theories
If you encounter a potential scam, please walk away, and report it to the FDA (1-800-FDA-1088). If you are considering a new treatment, always feel free to discuss it with your own health care provider.